Fans are buying into NBC's 'Chuck'

NEW YORK — The sprawling NBC Experience Store in Rockefeller Center is the place to go if you're shopping for a Jim "Mad Money" Cramer bobblehead or a Biggest Loser refrigerator magnet.

The Law & Order coffee mug? Right behind you.

Action figures of the villainous Sylar? They're over in the clearance section. (Sorry, Heroes fans. That can't be a good sign.)

A big crowd has lined up inside the store on this raw winter morning to get autographs from and have their pictures taken with Zachary Levi, the star of Chuck.

The show, a frisky but ratings-challenged espionage/comedy mash-up, has averted cancellation twice, primarily because of the ardor of its fan base. So Levi, 29, ends up making a lot of personal appearances.

The grass-roots campaign seems to be paying off. A couple of weeks into its third season, Chuck has increased its audience by more than 20 percent from last year.

"Word of mouth has been a big factor in the numbers picking up. Our fans are very passionate," Levi says.

Also, NBC has promoted the show relentlessly, he says.

Indeed, watching the network's NFL wild card playoff doubleheader earlier this month, viewers saw so many plugs for Chuck that they might have thought it was a new brand of beer.

If you haven't tasted this heady brew yet, the series revolves around Chuck Bartowski, who lives uneasily in two worlds.

On the day shift, he's a nerdy computer-support tech with a pocket protector and a name tag, working at a big-box store called Buy More.

After a vast database of highly classified material is downloaded into his brain, Chuck is dragged along — with extreme reluctance — on dangerous spy missions by Casey (Adam Baldwin), a lethal NSA agent, and Sarah (Yvonne Strahovski), a stunning CIA operative.

It's a challenging role for Levi: half leading man and half goofy sidekick.

"He has to be the straight man at Buy More and the funny guy in the spy world," says Chris Fedak, the show's co-creator and executive producer. "It's a testament to Zac's dramatic and comic chops that he can carry it off. That's some very complicated acting math going on there."

Fortunately, Levi is comfortable stepping into Chuck's, um, sneakers. The character's trademark high-top Converse Chuck Taylors have long been the actor's preferred footwear, even in formal situations.

"Chucks and a tux," he says proudly.

"Sometimes I'll get to work and the wardrobe they have set out for Chuck is exactly what I'm wearing," Levi says. "On those days, I tell them, 'I'll just go with what I have on.'"

That style synchrony isn't happening as much this season. In a transparent bid to attract more viewers, our favorite geek has taken on a far more worldly and sophisticated sheen.

Chuck has been implanted with a new computer program that, like Neo in The Matrix, allows him to instantly master any number of complex skills.

Kung fu, flamenco guitar, sword fighting, ballroom dancing, fluency in obscure dialects — they all come easily to Chuck now. Suddenly, he's more James Bond than Jerry Lewis.

"I always did a lot of the stunts," says Levi, who is taller (6-foot-4) and more dashing than he appears on the tube. "But it used to be mostly falling down and running away. Now, it's martial arts and gunplay.

"Since every year could be our last, it's forced us to push the envelope," he says. "This season is a little more intense, but Chuck is still the same guy. He's been going on these spy missions for a while. He couldn't keep being a whiny little girl like he was the first year."

Being adaptable — that's something else that comes naturally to the actor.

He was born Zachary Levi Pugh in Lake Charles, La. He and his two sisters experienced a peripatetic childhood because of his father's job: field technician for Liburdi Dimetrics, a manufacturer of industrial welding equipment.

"He would go to train people or fix machinery all over the country," says Levi. "We lived in Connecticut, Nebraska, Washington, you name it. We probably spent the most time in Ventura, Calif., where my mom's side of the family is from."

"I was in sixth grade, living in Redmond, Wash., when my middle school put on Grease," he says. "I auditioned for that and I haven't stopped since."

Levi enjoyed a TV breakthrough at age 21 on the underrated ABC sitcom Less Than Perfect, which was canceled after four seasons.

His second series, Chuck, has had a pretty rocky ride. But thanks to the Jay Leno meltdown, the show's chances of survival have improved dramatically. With gaping holes in its prime-time schedule, NBC isn't likely to cancel any existing programs.

Which, of course, is just fine with Levi.

"It doesn't suck to be part of a show where I get to run around and beat up bad guys and kiss beautiful women."

In other words, that "Chuck Me" T-shirt? You won't find it in the clearance section any time soon.